A favorite ice-breaking question at social gatherings is to ask guests to list eight to ten people, living or dead, who they would most like to invite to a dinner party. Besides Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Carl Jung I think that a person I’d simply have to invite would be Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard, or Blessed Hildegard as she is properly titled in the Catholic Church, was a medieval Christian born around the year 1098 who lived to the ripe old age of 81.
During a time when women had few occupations other than being wives, mothers, nuns, or midwives, Hildegard was a writer, artist, composer, linguist, philosopher, poet, visionary, political advisor, and healer. Her Ordo Virtutem is one of the first known liturgical dramas, making her a playwrite as well. She wrote hundreds of texts, including poems, songs, letters, medical texts, theological works, and plays, while also producing thousands of beautiful illuminations.
Although I have Scivias, the first of three volumes about the visions she had during her lifetime, what has delighted and engaged me most is Blessed Hildegard’s music. I bought Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen, a contemporary production of her music, some time last year. The combination of native beats and new age arrangements with her “plainsong” style is wonderful. However, if you’re more of a traditionalist, Amazon music offers several different arrangements and productions of Blessed Hildegard’s music. Try out the music samples on different CDs for a real, uplifting treat from an amazing woman.
It amazes me that a woman who had so few options was able to do so much with her life. By the end of her long, robust life she was an advisor of kings, princes, and popes; had run two abbeys; had numerous visions and conversations with God, and produced extensive works as a medical healer and naturalist. Living in an age where western women have unparalleled opportunities but make much less use of them, I’m an admirer of the women who came before us like feminine John the Baptists. They made it possible for us to have the means of wholeness, freedom, love, and meaning at our fingertips, even though we are daughters of Eve.
I’m including some of Hildegard’s art, with descriptions of the visions she had (and sometimes their meaning) alongside.
I saw a bright light, and in this light the figure of a man the color of a sapphire, which was all blazing with a gentle, glowing fire. And that bright light bathed the whole of the glowing fire, adn the glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential.
Then I saw in the secret places in the heights of Heaven two armies of heavenly spirits who shone with great brightness. Those in one of the armies had on their breasts wings, with forms like human forms in front of them, on which human features showed as if in clear water. Those in the second army also had wings on their breasts, which displayed forms like human forms, in which the image of the Son of Man shone as if in a mirror. [. . .] these armies were arrayed like a crown around the others [. . .] they burned like fire, and had many wings, in which they showed as if in a mirror all the Church ranks arrayed in order. And I saw no other shape either in these or in the others. And all these armies were singing with marvellous voices all kinds of music about the wonders that God works in blessed souls, and by this God was magnificently glorified.
After this I saw a vast instrument, round and shadowed, in the shape of an egg, small at the top, large in the middle, and narrowed at the bottom; outside it, surrounding its circumference, there was bright fire with, as it were, a shadowy zone under it. And in that fire there was a globe of sparkling flame so grat that the whole instrument was illuminated by it, over which three little torches were arranged in such a way that by their fire they held up the globe lest it fall.
This vast instrument, in the shape of an egg, faithfully shows Omnipotent God, incomprehensible in His majesty and inestimable in His mysteries and the hope of all the faithful.
O Holy Fire which soothes the spirit
O fire of the spirit which I have tried
life force of all creation
holiness you are in living form
You are a holy ointment
for perilous injuries
You are holy in cleansing
the fetid wound.
O breath of holiness
O fire of loving
O sweet taste in the breast
you fill the heart
with the good aroma of virtues.
O fountain of purity
with whom it is considered
That God made the strangers one with us
and the damned saved.
O robe of life and hope for the companions
our brothers all of the church
and the belt of honesty
save the blessed.
Caring for all those
who are held down by enemies
and dissolve the restraints.
whom the divine will save and free.
O path of strength
that enters all places
in the high places and in the plains
and in all the depths
you call and unify all.
From you the smoke flows,
the ether files,
jewels have their qualities
water streams shown their way
and earth made green and fresh.
You always teach comprehending
by inspiriational wisdom with happiness.
Praise be to you,
who is the sound of praise,
and joy of life, hope and noble strength
giving the premium of the light.
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